Unfortunately, the Balkans have a terrible history of bear cruelty. Up until very recently, it was common for restaurants to have bears in tiny cages as a way of attracting customers. These bears would live off sweets and bread crusts thrown to them by passersby, and the restaurant owners would frequently forget to give them water.
‘Dancing bears’ were an even crueller tourist attraction. Made to stand on red hot sheets of metal, the bears would move from one paw to the other to try and escape the pain, giving the illusion that they were dancing. Music was played in the background so that the bears came to associate it with this excruciating pain, meaning that whenever they heard music they would still ‘dance,’ even when there were no hot metal sheets.
This may all sound like an outdated and even archaic practice, but restaurant bears were popular in Kosovo until as late as 2010, when a law was passed in Kosovo that made it illegal to keep privately owned bears. Immediately after this, an organisation named FOUR PAWS offered the government support in assisting them in the creation of a species-appropriate place for the ‘restaurant bears’ to live.
About the Bear Sanctuary Prishtina
After keeping privately owned bears was made illegal in 2010, FOUR PAWS worked tirelessly to create an area where the bears could be rehabilitated. With 16 hectares of woodland and large, open enclosures mimicking what would be the bears’ natural habitat, the Bear Sanctuary Prishtina eventually opened its doors in 2013.
The sanctuary currently looks after 20 bears (when I visited they only had 19 but in June 2019, they rescued a bear cub from a box in somebody’s garage, so today they have 20), all of whom have been rescued from appalling conditions. Due to their abuse, some of them have severe psychological and behavioural problems, and so the sanctuary works with animal psychologists to create personalised behavioural and environmental enrichment programmes in order for the bears to heal from their pasts.
One such example is Vini. Born in 2005 and kept in a tiny cage with no mental stimulation for 8 years, Vini still paces up and down in his enclosure. One way that the sanctuary is helping Vini is by providing him with mental stimulation. Instead of just giving his food to him as they do with the other bears, they hide it in various places, encouraging him to use different senses and figure out how to access it himself. Exercises like this are vital in helping to rehabilitate bears like Vini.
Is the Bear Sanctuary Ethical?
It may strike some people as cruel that the bears are still living in captivity, but they would not be able to survive alone in the wild and so it is not as simple as just taking them to a forest and ‘setting them free.’ First off, these bears have lived in captivity for their entire lives and so they would not be able to find their own food etc. Secondly, due to the horrific abuse that they have suffered, their psychological and behavioural problems would make it even more difficult for the bears to survive in the wild.
Not only that, but because the bears are so used to humans, there is also a big risk that they would venture into areas populated by humans, or not harbour an instinctual fear of poachers, meaning that they would risk being recaptured or hunted.
In May of 2018, the Bear Sanctuary Prishtina introduced an ‘Environmental Education Centre,’ which offers various educational exhibitions, games and seminars, as well as an on-site vegetarian restaurant.
The Bear Sanctuary Prishtina – How to Get There
As the Bear Sanctuary Prishtina is only 20km from Prishtina, in the village of Mramor, getting there is relatively simple. From the bus station in Prishtina (a 25 minute walk from the centre or 3 EU taxi), take a bus going in the direction of ‘Gjilan.’ Although there is no online timetable, the buses are very frequent so you will be fine just turning up at the station. All of the buses have the destination written on the front, the cost is 2 EU and the journey time is one hour.
Once you are on the bus, make sure you tell the driver where you are going (if he doesn’t understand ‘Bear Sanctuary’ then say ‘Mramor’ as this is the name of the closest village) because otherwise he won’t stop! Once you’re off the bus, the Bear Sanctuary is a 3km walk down a quiet country lane next to a river. It’s a nice walk, and well signposted, although due to the length, I’d recommend visiting the sanctuary on a nice warm day!
If you’d rather not chance it with a public bus then taxis cost around 13 EU from the centre of Prishtina.
When coming back, you can take a bus from the opposite side of the road to where you got off, or ask somebody at the sanctuary to call a taxi for you. Because my friends and I didn’t know how long we would be waiting for the bus, we decided to hitchhike, which is very common in Kosovo (for some hitchhiking safety tips then check out this post at HitchWiki).
I think only three cars drove past us before a man slowed down to offer us a lift. It turned out that he actually worked at the Bear Sanctuary Prishtina and so he was able to tell us some more information about it! Just like all other Kosovars/Albanians that I have met, he was delighted to see tourists exploring his country.
Inside the Bear Sanctuary Prishtina
After walking for 45 minutes in the 30 degree heat, my friends and I were desperate to get an ice cold drink at the on-site bistro! They actually have a huge menu of vegetarian and vegan food, but after our sodas we were more excited to see the bears than sample the local cuisine!
After paying the 1.50 EU entrance fee, we took our time wandering around the park. Each enclosure has a couple of bears inside it, and the bears tend to be paired up with their best friends. While some of them were hiding in the trees, we got to see most of them, including getting really close to Rina and her mate Ari!
Some other bears that we were lucky enough to see close-up were Vini (mentioned above) and Kassandra. Kassandra was the first bear rescued by FOUR PAWS as she was in the worst condition. When her owner heard that keeping bears was now illegal, he simply abandoned his restaurant, leaving Kassandra locked in the cage outside in the freezing cold. Teenagers walking by would hurl abuse and throw rocks at her, and the only food she had were scraps that were sometimes tossed in by passersby. Her fur was matted and grey, but after spending time at the sanctuary, she now has a shiny blonde coat and is one of the most playful bears there! Another adorable fact about Kassandra is that she knows her name and will always come to the fence when one of the staff call her!
One thing that I really loved about the sanctuary were the little information plaques about each of the bears. Not only do the plaques tell the story of the bear’s background, but they also reveal cute little character traits of each bear – for example, Rina loves most foods but abhors cucumber!
Once we’d ambled slowly round the sanctuary, we made our way out through the gift shop, stopping to watch the 15-minute documentary that is screened near the reception desk. The documentary shows raw footage of the bears being freed from their cages and brought to the sanctuary, so it’s definitely an interesting watch, and extremely heartwarming! As far as the shop goes, all of the gifts are lovely and reasonably priced, and so I’d definitely recommend buying something while you’re there as it goes to a really good cause.
That concludes my experience of visiting the Bear Sanctuary Prishtina. I’m definitely glad that I went there, not only because it was super cool seeing the bears up close and personal, but also because I learnt something new while getting to support a good cause. I’m not a fan of zoos and such, but this is a cruelty-free way of seeing wild animals, and I definitely recommend a trip here if you find yourself in the Republic of Kosovo!
You can find the Bear Sanctuary Prishtina on Facebook here. It is open every day of the week from 10:00 until 19:00 and they are very responsive to Facebook messages.
My featured image is used by kind permission of Arben Llapashtica. You can find more of his work here.
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